If you think women can’t drive cars and if you have the bad habit of shouting at them, make sure you don’t run into Sritee Singh. For, the 28-year-old may simply decide to follow you home and convince your wife to attend driving classes. For Sritee, a professional driver, holding the steering wheel is akin to empowerment.
This, precisely, is the primary goal of Azad Foundation. The NGO makes self-sufficient professionals out of young women, especially those like Sritee who wanted to escape a traumatic married life. Established in Delhi under the leadership of executive director Meenu Vadera in 2008, Azad came to Kolkata in June 2015 and started its programme ‘Women on Wheels,’ or, simply ‘WOW’ to the women involved in it. Their job is to prepare and empower young women so that they can live with dignity and independence.
One way to ensure that was to introduce the Sakha cab service. While these cabs are running successfully in Delhi and Jaipur, Kolkata is getting ready for a launch. Coming from the section of society where girls are still considered burdens on the family and married off as soon as they are adults, the trainees at Azad Foundation are encouraged to break all stereotypes and prove themselves. They have to take lessons in self-defence, first-aid, map-reading, spoken English and communication, gender and sexuality, reproductive health, law and legal rights.
Sritee Singh, one of the trainees from the first batch in Kolkata has already tasted success. Forced to marry her brother-in-law after the death of her sister, Sritee faced immense abuse. “I hate the popular perception that women are useless outside their homes. Since professional driving is almost universally considered a man’s job I wanted to be a driver and break the notion,” says Sritee.
Now a divorcee with a seven-year-old girl, she says: “My training was an extraordinary experience. Thanks to the map reading classes I can recognize and understand the meaning of every symbol on roadmaps. We were also trained to defend ourselves during emergency situations.”
Presently working for a High Court advocate, Sritee can finally live her life on her own terms. “I can’t express my joy in words. When someone comes and asks me ‘Madam, are you a driver?’ I feel extremely proud. But it remains a fact that nobody throws the same question to a man.”
The 28-year-old shares an experience. “During an altercation, a male driver told me that I should go home and start cooking. I told him that I would go to his house and make his wife hold the steering wheel because his wife would make a better driver and he could do the dishes,” she says. “Men can’t do everything. But women can,” Shritee quickly adds.
Having passed the Class 10 exam, Nabanita Paul, a resident of Lake Gardens in south Kolkata, decided to leave her career as a beautician to become a driver. “I felt that I would be able to create a new identity for myself. People would see me as someone different from other girls in my age group,” says the 20-year-old. Recalling her training, she says: “I really liked the systematic manner in which the classes were held. They made sure we understood everything and never gave up on any of us.” Now working as a private chauffeur, she says, “I have become braver and certainly more confident than I was before. Earlier, I had to ask for money from my father. Today, when I like something, I know I have the money to buy it.”
A number of women have found jobs to sustain themselves. While Soniya Das (22) is working at a big private hospital in Kolkata, Sunita Munda (21) is now a trainer at Maruti Driving School. Others who have completed their training are optimistic about their careers. Thirty-five-year old Parveen Begum, says: “I am a trainee for a long time. Although looking after the education of my children and attending to household chores at the same time is quite difficult I am determined to get a job.”